Interview with Oxbow guitarist Niko Wenner, vocalist Eugene Robinson, and bassist Dan Adams | By Christopher J. Harrington
A decade ago, experimental rock legends Oxbow’s intense and gripping record, The Narcotic Story, blasted its way across the skies of freedom, opening portals both human and intercosmic. It was to be the band’s last work for some time. Damn, we’ve missed these guys! Oxbow have been a band, in many ways, without peers – a thorough and singular expressionistic pulse, raging, oblong, and mad. The band’s newest work of spirituality, Thin Black Duke – released May 5 on Hydra Head – is their most soaring and, dare we say, beautiful yet: a reflective and topographical record, much different than any of the band’s previous releases.
“I wanted the record to be free of anything that got in the way of listeners connecting with the music,” guitarist Niko Wenner opines. “That meant a concerted effort with my co-producer on the record, the estimable Joe Chiccarelli; great song arrangement advice from studio guru, Monte Vallier; and really, every little part scrutinized by every one of us to make what also had to be a complete Oxbow record.”
The tactile and piercing Californian quartet make a sort of art rock that cruises like lightning across a flat and grey Midwestern horizon: pulsing, exact, and challenging. The band’s catalog is a library of wild noise, free jazz, avant-garde, hardcore, drudge blues, stunt metal, and classical expression—often coming at you in chaotic and morphing forms. The new record, though, feels more mature, and it’s quite possibly the band’s first complete masterpiece, a thoroughly honest and engaging admission.
“There was a lot of thought involved,” vocalist Eugene Robinson admits. “If you’re 18, you write compelled by things like joy or pain, but in the time we’ve worked on the record, our lives have absorbed a lot—a lot beyond the poles of either joy and pain. Complex adult living and births, deaths, life, love, divorce, and not an ounce of it to be diminished by playing it for drama.”
Thin Black Duke is a deep comment. It has a unique quality that explains itself infinitely, across a wide range of battlefields. The decade it took to create the work seems to have spaced its totality right to the edge. It works because it has to. This is fluidity like Oxbow have never assembled before. The music is deeply serious, literary and complex, but reflects as a singular entity, interpreted unilaterally.
“I don’t think it’s important to have to figure anything out in music,” bassist Dan Adams says. “You can just listen to the soundscape, infinitely. One can experience music very deeply on a totally abstract level. If you do understand what’s going on in the lyrics, the story, or the scene, this allows you to fully engage in one way—and perhaps this is the most complete way—but I really love the way music can be pure sound, including the voice.”
Live, Oxbow are baptismal. The band’s performances are emotionally and physically confrontational. The level of artistic function is off the charts. With Thin Black Duke, the band have achieved architecture separate from their live persona. This is an album that is a whole and complete experience. It moves within a deep and purposeful lane—an album that is both within and without space.
“I see it as clinical, and maybe the most anti-human record we’ve ever done,” Robinson explains. “Don’t know if you have spent time around any kind of large predator, but when they look at you, they tend to do so with a crushingly chill disregard for any and all of what you might give a fuck about. It’s negating in a really compelling way. So, for me, the record is clean in a certain way. It’s shorn of adolescent drama and even a moral framework. It is what it is. And you can’t get cleaner than that.”